Home Work: Nothing to Grumble About

Since Covid-19, some people enjoy the variety of working from home.  They feel better about the “drudgery factor” related to their daily job.

In a recent survey from getAbstract the majority of respondents said they’d like to continue at-home work, at least part-time, even after their offices open back up.

When you work from home and you’re tired hunched over a computer, you can stretch out on the couch for a ten (thirty?) minute nap.  During my career as a high school English teacher, I didn’t have the luxury of working from home–and like many teachers I had a tendency to overwork.

I became wall-eyed from grading student papers.  I’d spend hours editing their writing.  I suffered through one inspired metaphor after another: “Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.”  

My friend Ed, who was the school psychologist, noticed how drawn and fatigued I looked.  He was very philosophical about work and working. “Chop wood, carry water,” Ed told me sitting in his office. “That’s what most jobs are about–tasks that have to be done.”  At the time, this sounded like Buddhist bunkum and I told Ed so, but he just smiled. How could he compare my educational career to chopping wood and carrying water?  I made a difference.  I was significant.  Besides, teaching required skills.

Ed’s comment about wood-chopping seemed so demeaning, I wanted to argue with him that many people felt passionate and fulfilled by their jobs.  What’s the meme you hear from people who love their work?  I can’t believe I get paid to do this.  They have trouble retiring because they can’t imagine a meaningful existence without going to work.

Later, I realized Ed was just trying to encourage me to pace myself more, and keep my career as an educator in perspective.  But I never forgot his phrase “chop wood, carry water.” I now think I underestimated this idea.  Whether you work from an office or at home, whether you’re a bank president or a welder, no doubt your job is comprised of several repetitive, menial tasks like filling out paperwork or sharpening your tools.

When I think about it, most of the work I’ve done in my life has been chopping wood and carrying water. How many beds have I made, dishes have I washed, and meals have I prepared in a life time? I spent way more time doing these kinds of activities than breakthrough research on why Johnny still can’t write a decent metaphor.  And actually, it’s the simple tasks of living that helped me learn to be more accepting and patient with the difficult work I later did as a teacher.

Some people are actually happier doing mindless, wood-chopping work.  And others risk getting burned-out performing work that requires passionate intensity.  My friend Steve was a postman for more than thirty years delivering mail on the same routes over and over again, but he liked his job because he said it wasn’t taxing: he didn’t have to think.  Mike, on the other hand, a gifted woodcraft artist, abruptly quit carving wood last year and moved to Seattle.  His comment: “The art took too much out of me and frankly, I began to dread it.”

Working from home is nothing new. We’ve all done this for years, we’ve just never acknowledged the importance of home work before.  So, during this pandemic my best words of advice:  chop wood, carry water, stay calm, and carry on!


Image credit:  grading student papers        Image credit:  chopping wood 


How Are Your Alpha Waves?

My adult son, John, came home for a visit and told me, “Ignore anything I say that sounds off—it’s my suppressed-narcissistic-rage talking.”

“You’re what?”

“I’m reading this book, The Divided Mind by John Sarno about how you can be this kind, nice guy on the outside, but inside you’re really angry. You want to be special and loved and dependent and independent all at the same time. People around you just aren’t giving you what you need.”

We both laughed because someone had created such a big term for what is basically, the human condition. I’d not read the book, but John said it was about psychogenic illness.

“Is that like psychosomatic illness?”

“No. Psychosomatic is like partly in your head. Psychogenic says the illness IS ALL in your head.”

John acted like the book was mildly entertaining, but my interest was piqued because I’ve experienced psychosomatic illness in the past. It could be a family mental health issue. My mother always claimed Aunt Gertrude was a complete hypochondriac. If anyone mentioned a health problem they had, Aunt Gertrude had that same issue or worse. Her nerves were shot, her back was torqued, and her female parts were in complete disarray. Miraculously, Gertrude lived well into her 70’s.

My psychosomatic illness started probably with the death of my brother when he was ten and I was twelve. But symptoms didn’t show up until I was in a potentially fatal car accident when I was twenty. I only had a mild concussion, but I’d never come that close to death before.

Suddenly I realized my body was fallible.

For the next year, I found myself in one emergency room after another begging for help. I had heart palpitations, headaches, and vague feelings of pain. I was listening so closely and carefully to my body, every hitch or tremor was evidence of some deadly disease. Something had to be wrong with me.

Indeed, I did have a problem but it wasn’t exactly physical. I’d been traumatized by a couple of life events (my brother’s death and the car accident) and needed help dealing with the anxiety. The doctors though, put me through a gamut of needless x-rays and blood tests. I even had an electroencephalogram, searching for a possible brain tumor. During the procedure, I remember looking at my reflection in the dusty window of Rockingham Memorial Hospital in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I was sitting at the end of the examining table in a hospital gown, my head strung with wires and electrodes. In the window reflection, I looked like Medusa.

“Well,” the technician told me when I peppered him with questions about the findings of the encephalogram, “I’m not supposed to say anything . . . but I will tell you this: you’ve got great alpha waves.”

Great alpha waves, huh?  I thought that must be a good thing.  So, I took some temporary comfort in his prognosis, until the next bout of health phobia.  It wasn’t until I read a book called The Well Body Book by a couple of hippie doctors in the 70’s, that I finally calmed down and started having a little faith in my body. I’ll never forget their discussion of what they called “the three-million year old healer,” your own body’s defenses against disease and illness. They talked about how really rare bad diseases are, and that most infections are viral and therefore survivable.

I’m thinking today about The Well Body book and those hippie doctors’ wise words.  Coronavirus sometimes feels like a modern-day plague–but it’s not.  It’s a viral infection, not like the Bubonic Plague which was bacterial.  Covid will be non-fatal for the vast majority of people.  It’s good to keep this in mind as the pandemic spreads this summer.


Image Credit:  Psychosomatic       Image Credit:  Electroencephalogram